Bas Nicholl and Jenn Patterson stood outside the test barn after the Travers. The two assistants watched Orb and Will Take Charge circle the small green barn at the corner of Union Avenue and the Yaddo Gardens. Efforts complete, the horses decompressed. So did the assistants. One more than the other.
“Now, I know how you feel,” Nicholl said to Patterson. “What a feeling. To walk back in front of the crowd, they’re cheering for you, saluting you…I’ve never been there for a big one.”
Nicholl, an 11-year veteran for Hall of Famer Wayne Lukas, finally saw a big one.
Nicholl and Patterson watched the Derby together, Patterson’s Orb won, she danced in the streets while Nicholl walked home in the slop. Two weeks later, Lukas won the Preakness with Oxbow, Nicholl was at Keeneland. That’s his role, be where Lukas is not.
This time, it was different as fourth-choice Will Take Charge caught longshot Moreno in the final stride to win the $1 million Travers. Kentucky Derby winner Orb ran hard to finish third, three quarters of a length behind Moreno and a nose in front of Palace Malice. The first four finished within a length of each other after 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.68.
Owned by 73-year-old Arkansas native Willis Horton, Will Take Charge erased a four-race losing streak (Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Jim Dandy) with a stoic performance that further muddled a division desperate for a leader.
Orb won the Derby, he hasn’t won since. Oxbow won the Preakness, he’s on the shelf. Palace Malice won the Belmont and Jim Dandy, he’s 2-for-8 on the year. Verrazano dominated the Haskell, he flopped in the Travers. Will Take Charge won the Smarty Jones and the Rebel at Oaklawn this winter, was beaten double digits in the three legs of the Triple Crown, but won the Travers. Give him the yellow jersey.
Aboard for the first time in the afternoon, Luis Saez delivered the perfect formula of patience and panache, swooping wide and late to nail Moreno, who ran hard and long for as long as he could. In his first start since finishing third in the Belmont in June, Orb put in a sustained run, wrestled the lead away from Moreno but withered the last sixteenth of a mile.
Projected pace contender Palace Malice churned in place at the break as Moreno and Jose Ortiz broke sharply and cleared five rivals to his inside by the time the field passed the wire. Without a choice, Mike Smith settled Palace Malice at the back, allowing Moreno to lope through the first quarter mile in :24.40. Romansh, from the rail, adopted a spot in second. John Velazquez slid Verrazano to the outside, third, just as he wanted. Into the first turn, Moreno led by a length over an eager Romansh and a poised Verrazano. Jose Lezcano, replacing injured Joel Rosario, kept Orb close and inside, just five lengths off the pace. Saez parked Will Take Charge to Orb’s outside in fifth. If you polled the jockeys, all would have been content, except for Smith, whose best weapon was nullified with the stumbling break.
Moreno strolled through a half in :48.88 and three quarters in 1:13.43. Midway on the turn, Lezcano gunned Orb through on the inside as Moreno drifted out. Verrazano and Romansh found nothing. Will Take Charge waited in fifth. Palace Malice circled three wide from the back.
At the quarter pole, Orb cut the corner and gained a slight advantage. Moreno drifted but regained his direction. Saez implored Will Take Charge but the long-striding colt hovered, and that’s all, he wasn’t gaining an inch. Palace Malice circled widest of all but had a mountain to climb. Passing the eighth pole, Orb stayed at it but opened the door as Moreno re-gained what he had lost, taking the lead for the second time. At the sixteenth pole, Will Take Charge drifted into the slipstream of Moreno. Still two lengths down with time running out, Saez ratcheted him out, put his whip away and aimed. In a flash, it wasn’t if Will Take Charge was going to catch Moreno, it was if he was going to catch him in time. Just.
Lukas replaced Junior Alvarado with Saez after the Jim Dandy. The veteran trainer played a hunch.
“I just thought he was a good fit, I like those nifty, smaller riders that get on their bellies,” Lukas said. “He’s strong and he rides aggressively. I thought we were going to be midpack and we’d have to put it all together. I loved his ride. He made one critical move that won us the race, about 100 yards from the wire, we were behind and he pulls him out, you watch the replay, the last 75 yards, his stride lengthens 5 feet, he really surges, that made it. If he stays tucked in there, he loses.”
Holding his own in his first season at Saratoga, Saez breezed Will Take Charge and learned a little. He watched replays of all his races and learned a little more.
“I know he’s better from the outside, from watching his replays. He was lugging in a little bit in the stretch, he changed leads,” Saez said. “I like the horse, he felt really good when I worked him, I felt like he could win the race. We thought he was brave in the morning and was brave again today. It’s unbelievable, this is my first year at Saratoga. I’m usually at Calder.”
Horton purchased Will Take Charge for $425,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale. A veteran of 50 years in the sport, Horton thought the white-faced colt was the best he had ever seen.
Horton won the Kentucky Oaks with Lemons Forever and has campaigned other stakes winners. Will Take Charge leapt to the top of his list of color-bearers.
“I’ve been in the sport for 50 years. I’ve paid my dues. I wanted to win the Kentucky Derby but this is close. Our horse didn’t mature enough for the Derby but right now, he’s at his best,” Horton said, as he walked from the winner’s circle. “It’s hard to describe. It was close, wasn’t it? He timed it a little too tight to suit me but it turned out all right. “
By Unbridled’s Song out of two-time Spinster winner Take Charge Lady, Will Take Charge made his career debut here last summer, gaining ground to finish fifth. He won his next start, a maiden at Keeneland. A month later, he finished last of 13 in the Kentucky Jockey Club.
“Wayne doesn’t lose faith, he’s stayed hooked all the way,” Horton said. “He said we have a horse here, it’s just a matter of getting it all together.”
Lukas sent Will Take Charge to Oaklawn Park for the winter. He won the Smarty Jones and Rebel, with a drubbing in the Southwest in between. He finished eighth in the Derby, after finding trouble at the head of the stretch, then failed to threaten in the Preakness and Belmont. Some would wonder, not Lukas. He kept the boat in the water and was rewarded with a better effort in the Jim Dandy, when finishing second behind Palace Malice.
“It’s like any athletic event, you’ve got to get in there and scrimmage a little bit to get better. He had some unfortunate luck in those other races, he was moving like crazy in the Derby, I think if he doesn’t get shut off in the Derby, he might have won it,” Lukas said. “I never lost faith, he’s big, he’s growthy, he grew another half inch since we’ve been here. I had too many freshmen basketball players who were 6-6 and weren’t worth a damn and they were pretty good as seniors.”
Nicholl began to gain confidence as well. In the month since the Jim Dandy, Will Take Charge began eating better, doing better.
“He started to flourish, just watching him, we all felt like after the Jim Dandy he would be a better horse today,” Nicholl said. “We felt quietly confident that we might have a better horse today. He answered the prayers.”
At the end of the day, Will Take Charge walked out of the test barn and past a line of cars waiting to exit the stable area. Cold water bandages iced down, neck bowed, the 17 hand chestnut colt swelled up and pranced for a few strides. Nicholl snapped a shank on his right side, gave the horse a pat on his neck and high-fived a security guard. There’s nothing like being there.